Wednesday, April 15, 2009

R.I.P. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

I'm a few days late, but I just wanted to post a brief, through very heartfelt, note about the tragic loss of feminist and queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who died the evening of Sunday, April 12th from breast cancer at the age of 58.

There's an excellent tribute by Richard Kim in The Nation, beginning with a sentiment I wholeheartedly share:
I have only ever worn out one book. The first copy--which I still keep as an artifact of my 20s--became a palimpsest of sorts, its text underlined in four different colors of pencil, emblazoned with streaks of yellow and green neon highlighter. Little enigmatic notes crawl up and down the margins of dog-eared pages, and decomposing Post-it notes jut out untidily from the edges; the spine has long since given way. At a certain point, picking up this particular copy became too overwhelming an encounter with my old selves, and so I bought a fresh one, which I tried in vain to keep clean. That book is Epistemology of the Closet, and its author is the brilliant, inimitable, explosive intellectual Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who died last night from breast cancer at the age of 58.

It is difficult to calculate the impact of Sedgwick's scholarship, in part because its legacy is still in the making, but also because she worked at a skew to so many fields of inquiry. Feminism, queer theory, psychoanalysis and literary, legal and disability studies--Sedgwick complicated and upended them all, sometimes in ways that infuriated more anodyne scholars, but always in ways that pushed established parameters.
I, too, have an earmarked copy of Epistemology of the Closet and I deeply admire not only Sedgwick's body of work but also her singular intelligence and remarkable insight.

From Epistemology of the Closet:
...the question of gender and the question of sexuality, inextricable from one another though they are in that each can be expressed only in terms of the other, are nonetheless not the same question, that in twentieth-century Western culture gender and sexuality represent two analytic axes that may productively be imagined as being as distinct from one another as, say gender and class or class and race. Distinct, that is to say, no more than minimally, but nonetheless useful. (p. 30)
And, from her seminal article "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl":
Today there is no corpus of law or of medicine about masturbation; it sways no electoral politics; institutional violence and street violence do not surround it, nor does an epistemology of accusation; people who have masturbated who may contract illnesses are treated as people who are sick with specific disease organisms, rather than as revelatory embodiments of sexual fatality. Yet when so many confident jeremiads are spontaneously launched at the explicit invocation of the masturbator, it seems that her power to guarantee a Truth from which she is herself excluded has not lessened in two centuries. To have so powerful a form of sexuality run so fully athwart the precious and embattled sexual identities whose meaning and outlines we always insist on thinking we know, is only part of the revelatory power of the Muse of masturbation. (Critical Inquiry, vol. 17, no. 4, Summer 1991, p. 822)
Rest in peace, Eve Sedgwick. You will be greatly missed, in academia and beyond.

No comments: